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Wyss Biostasis Project Succeeds in 'Stopping Biological Time' in Tadpoles

Wyss Institute scientists have identified chemicals that could pause biological aging.
Wyss Institute scientists have identified chemicals that could pause biological aging. By Courtesy of the Wyss Institute at Harvard University
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

Scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have identified chemicals that could effectively pause biological aging as part of their “Biostasis” project, now over a year after they signed a five-year contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in December 2018.

The team’s goal is to achieve a form of biostasis — that is, “pausing” biological aging — within a living organism by reducing its cellular metabolism. Cellular metabolism is the set of chemical processes that occur within organisms to keep them alive. Reducing it would essentially stop biological time and keep organs in an unchanging state.

Richard Novak, a senior engineer at the Wyss Institute and member of the Biostasis group, said pursuing cryptobiosis, a form of biostasis in which cellular metabolism completely stops, would be nearly impossible. Instead, the team is trying to induce a hibernation-like state, or “torpor,” in which metabolism would be significantly reduced.

“A less extreme but still very, very effective [case] is more like the state of torpor, like people studied in Arctic ground squirrels a lot,” Novak said. “And that’s more like seasonal torpor, where for several months they go into this torpor state. There’s also daily torpor, where a lot of animals — for example in the tropics or the deserts — they go into torpor to conserve energy when there’s no way that they would find food or water.”

Novak said the ultimate goal of the project is to achieve a similar state that would reduce metabolism by “tenfold or higher,” while also being “safe and recoverable.”

Donald E. Ingber, the founding director at the Wyss Institute and principal investigator for the project, said the team has discovered chemical compounds that achieve biostasis in tadpoles.

“We have some chemicals already that, at least in some model systems, like where we use swimming frog tadpoles, we can add and their metabolism slows and their breathing slows and they stop moving,” Ingber said. “And when we wash them out they rebound back to normal.”

Ingber said these chemicals could eventually have medical applications as an injection for humans.

“From the military perspective it’s probably going to be somebody who’s injured badly, so it’s probably not going to be oral,” Ingber said. “So, it’s probably going to be injectable. And it could be inhaled, but if someone’s really badly injured, it’s probably going to be injectable.”

Novak said the team is now focusing on achieving biostasis in specific parts of the human body, which he said could allow doctors to delay surgical procedures for certain patients. He pointed to cases in which transplant patients might have to recover from other injuries before undergoing surgery.

“Let’s say the patient also has burns, they won’t actually be able to have the surgery to reattach the limb, and they lose the limb,” Novak said. “And so if you can just put the limb on hold for, let’s say, several weeks while the patient heals, then you can reattach it.”

Ingber said the team has made much greater progress than he initially expected and praised the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s funding of projects like Biostasis.

“We’ve already made major headway in the first nine months to a year,” Ingber said. “I don’t think we’re going to get it to human-level or whole animal-level in the near term, but I think we’re going to come up with compounds that could have commercial value for particular applications and will make major headway along the path to the bigger goal.”

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at ethan.lee@thecrimson.com.

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